Unleash The Instigator Within (When Your Team or Your Organizational Culture Needs a Shake Up)

My first grade teacher at Little Flower Catholic Grade School told me I was an instigator. I carried the ominous word home and pried the meaning out of my grandmother. Her explanation—a leader or troublemaker—was a relief. I was worried it meant an imminent prison sentence or a fast track to hell.

The reflex of people in power at my school was to condemn. Of course there was an upside: it sparked my fascination with the mayhem caused by leaders who prefer punishment and control rather than clarity and encouragement.


The resolve to challenge illogical, inept, or unkind authority may be just what is needed at work.  If you see something that is wrong, if the bullies have the pulpit, if the jerks are reaping the rewards—go deep inside. Tap into your instigator within.  If the people in power think you’re there to serve them, if sneering is the winning way, and if the occupants of mahogany row are afraid of no one—pull the emergency cord. If your instigator has been dormant due to an extended period of idyllic conditions or complacency, let her out. She will help redefine group norms, make courage contagious, and put purpose in bold print. She will notice the fingerprints of bullies. She can’t help but call out hypocrisy.

A caution here—that Instigator Inside may override your survival instincts.

Dialing up the Instigator Within is about doing the right thing for beloved colleagues and staff. And…it’s dangerous. To muster up the courage it helps to visualize those high performers who deserve appreciation and respect.

A few strategies that help:

  • Keep your values front and center
  • Anticipate threats—this allows your pre-frontal cortex to gird its loins and be less susceptible to amygdala hijack
  • Practice some instigating behaviors before rolling them out to a big stage
  • Connect with like-minded leaders (find your tribe!)

 A surefire way to know if your company is in need of an instigator:


By good people I don’t mean “superb at strategic planning,” or “the best invasive cardiologist.”  Not just excellent skills—but excellent humans who leave a wake of great relationships and accomplished goals.  Those gems who improve your day just by showing up in your doorway. The instigators have been too long dormant if good people have been jumping ship. Or worse—if good people are run off and demonized on their way out the door—then you have an organizational CODE BLUE.

Here are four examples that cry out for your instigator:

  1. A TOXIC PRESENCE: Is there a queen of the caustic comment in your meetings? A king of conspiracy theorizing in your hallway? When toxicity is allowed to run amok the result is withdrawal and resentment. Meetings don’t generate ideas, accomplish work, or inform—they just drive self-protection and waste time.  One indication that you have a Toxic Presence in your meetings:

It’s very quiet in there.

            If your manager is not managing the Toxic Presence at meetings, call out your Instigator and put her to work:

    • Announce your preferences: “I’d like a constructive conversation. I bet we can talk without being negative. It’d be great to hear from everyone.”
    • Muster up courage and respond to negative comments by supporting the unlucky target: “I like how Arthur is thinking about this. I want to hear more about what you were starting to say, Arthur.”  If you are the target, call out the bad behavior:  “Ouch! That sounds like you’re mad.  I would like to talk about this without the sarcasm.”
    • Run the need for “Ground Rules” up the flagpole. Establishing ground rules means you name the process and outcomes that will make the meeting useful and safe for everyone. Decide on follow-up and consequences because without those—you’ll have a fine list of ground rules that have zero impact on the meeting.
    • Float the idea of a brief meeting evaluation to be used at the end of each meeting. Have everyone rate the meeting (on a 1-5 scale) on items like these: “To what extent was everyone’s voice heard?” and “Meeting leader effectively managed disruptive participants.”

No finding in all of psychology and human resource is more consistent than the positive impact of recognition on employee performance.  Fundamentally, people simply want to be recognized and acknowledged for their efforts and contributions.”  Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work – Paul L. Marciano, PhD

Is your company a gratitude wasteland?

Launch a campaign. Strategize; pull in accomplices, set goals. Spread the appreciation beyond your direct reports to include your boss, your boss’s boss, a mailroom clerk, a member of the Board of Directors.

Invite your leaders to model an attitude of gratitude by attending your department meetings to recognize people in a high profile way.  Or give them names, thank you scripts, and telephone numbers to text or call.  If you want to dial it up— request a party in your department, a BBQ on the lawn, or a cocktail reception to celebrate and thank people.  You won’t know what’s possible unless you ask.


There’s a special ring of hell for leaders who conduct a satisfaction survey and then bury the results.  If morale is low to start with it will really tank when employees complete a survey process and the results are ignored.

If you’re motivated to lead a revolution—get your hands on the employee survey. Mine it. Figure out what might help and implement what you can in your area of influence.  Then take it up the organizational ladder a rung or two.

If there isn’t an employee satisfaction survey, create one. You can transform your workplace or your team with a ten-question, on-line survey if it elicits candor and if you pay attention to it. 


The performance evaluation exists ostensibly to support people and to align results in the organization–but often it infuriates and exhausts people.  Does it seem like whoever created your performance evaluation process hates people, wants the best people to leave, and hopes the organization fails? Call up your Instigator Within.

Meet with leadership, roll out the evidence, propose small tests of change, share your own results, and make the case that simple, well-designed performance evaluations could improve discretionary effort and business results. This won’t happen with incentives, forced rankings, and weird performance categories that are disconnected from reality.  A typical performance evaluation is counterproductive and distracts from real support.  Additionally, if financial rewards are linked to goals devised a year previously it drives a need to explain why a goal was abandoned. Or worse, it drives circuitous explanations about how an abandoned goal was, indeed, reached. Or worse yet—goals that should have been abandoned weren’t abandoned because, well, that’s where the money is. Crazy-making!


If you are in an organization where good people are leaving, where there is a chasm between organizational values and leader behavior, and leaders elicit a threat response among the employees—then you are pretty much gone too.  It’s just a matter of when and if you plan to take your body with you when your brain and soul call it quits.

But if you want to stick around why not take a shot at being an instrument of change? Your failing organizational culture needs your instigator—let her out!



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Patty Fahy

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